Immerse yourself in the local customs and culture by getting to know some of the key traditional Chinese festivals and events celebrated each year in Hong Kong. Here’s the lowdown on eight of them – plus, some etiquette advice for newcomers!
1. Chinese New Year
Though the date changes annually, CNY is usually celebrated in January or February (next date: 12 February 2021) and is easily the most significant of all the annual festivals. You’ll hear people greeting each other with “Kung hei fat choi!” – Cantonese for “Happy New Year” – and exchanging red envelopes of money, known as lai see. Traditionally, on New Year’s Day, a huge night parade passes through the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, while on the second day of the Lunar New Year, a dazzling fireworks display lights up the skies across Victoria Harbour. Due to social distancing measures, celebrations will be a little different this year – check online for updates.
2. Spring Lantern Festival
Falling on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year (26 February 2021), the Spring Lantern Festival is held to bid farewell to the previous year. Huge, brightly-lit lanterns of all shapes and sizes can be found as part of a parade in Tsim Sha Tsui. The lanterns stay on display for about a month.
3. Tin Hau Festival
More than 70 temples dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, are scattered across Hong Kong and stand as a testament to the territory’s rich maritime heritage. People old and young visit the temples for Tin Hau’s birthday, held in April or May according to the lunar calendar (27 April 2021). The biggest celebration is out in Yuen Long.
4. Cheung Chau Bun Festival
Sleepy fishing village Cheung Chau comes to life during its annual bun festival, held on Buddha’s Birthday – the fifth to the ninth days of the fourth lunar month, usually around May. Marked to honour the Taoist god Pak Tai, the centuries-old celebration is famous for sweet buns, culminating in a Bun Scrambling Competition, involving the climbing of 60-foot bamboo towers. The other highlight of the festival is the Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade where local school children in costumes pass through the island’s streets on floats.
5. Dragon Boat Festival
The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Tuen Ng Festival, takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, usually around May or June (14 June 2021), and is a public holiday. On this day, colourful dragon-boat races, where teams paddle accompanied by drum beats, are held around the city. In addition, a massive three-day party takes place down at the Central Harbourfront space as dragon boaters race across Victoria Harbour. San Miguel hosts a beer-fest, while a family zone keeps kids entertained.
6. Hungry Ghost
Incense fills the air and small fires erupt on roadsides across the city in late August/ early September when the Hungry Ghost Festival falls, and especially on the specific festival day (21 August 2021). During this “ghost month”, the gates of hell are said to open, leaving the un-dead free to wander. Food is given as offerings to them, and paper versions of valuable goods including mobile phones, bags and money.
7. Mid-autumn Festival
This major festival (21 September 2021) has been celebrated since the Tang Dynasty and honours the full moon, a symbol of unity for the Chinese. In Hong Kong, traditional round pastries known as mooncakes are still given, alongside modern versions. A must-see event is the enormous fire dragon dance in Tai Hang, where a Chinese dragon constructed with 70,000 glowing incense sticks winds through the streets down to Tin Hau. Another is the lantern display erected at Victoria Park
8. Chinese National Day
Hong Kong celebrates Chinese National Day on the same day (1 October) every year; it marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The celebrations include a variety of activities, but the main event every year is the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour. A word of warning: in “normal” years, this week (also known as Golden Week) is a very popular travel time for Chinese tourists, so book any activities a long way in advance!
Best Wishes For 2021!
Unfortunately, many of these events were cancelled or curtailed in 2020 due to COVID-19 (and, for the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, it was the first cancellation in over a century!). While we’re all looking forward to business as usual in 2021, do be sure to check online for up-to-date details on any restrictions or changes in the lead-up to these events and festivities.
CNY Red Envelopes
The etiquette around giving lai see, money distributed in red and gold envelopes (the colours stand for prosperity and good luck) as part of Chinese New Year celebrations, can be confusing for a newcomer. Here are some tips! • Generally, a senior gives lai see to a junior – so, bosses to staff, parents to children, married couples to single friends. • Ideally, the bank notes should be new; you’ll see people queuing at the bank to get fresh money. • Never give any amount with four in it (the Cantonese word for “four” sounds like “death”), or odd numbers, which are considered bad luck. • Try to avoid giving multiple notes (one is fine). • An acceptable amount for children is HK$20; for doormen/waiters/service staff, HK$100 is generally considered about right. Many employers also give their domestic helpers a bonus for Chinese New Year
A few points for avoiding social faux pas if you’re new to Hong Kong!
- When greeting people in a business setting, always greet the most important or senior member of the party first. In a social setting, greet the oldest person first and work your way down to the youngest.
- White is traditionally the colour of mourning, so avoid white flowers or wrapping paper for gifts or party decorations.
- Business cards are extremely popular in Hong Kong – make sure you take a stack with you to any meeting or function to have at the ready.
- When presenting something to someone (a business card or a gift, for example), it’s polite to offer the item with both hands; accept the item with both hands, too. When given someone’s business card, examine it before putting it aside.
- If you’re given a gift, don’t open it immediately; it suggests you’re interested only in the gift and not in the guest. It may also cause embarrassment if one gift is not as extravagant as someone else’s.
- Avoid giving clocks – they’re said to represent death. Blankets are also a no-no as they represent a decline in prosperity; similarly, knives will lead to a severing of a friendship.
- When dining, leave a small amount of food on your plate to signal you’ve finished eating but that your host’s serving was so generous you couldn’t eat it all. Chopsticks should always be laid on the rest, not in a bowl or on a dish.
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